Real Madrid will attempt to become the first team in history to successfully defend a Champions League title on Saturday when they meet Juventus at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Real Madrid have won two out of the last three Champions League titles, while Juve will seek to win their first title since 1996.
Both teams have been crowned champions in their domestic leagues this season, in Juventus’ case, for the sixth year in a row. And while Real, with their all-star lineup and unmatched European pedigree, must be considered slight favorites, this is a finely balanced tie that really seems like it could fall either way.
In one corner, you’ve got Real Madrid with its galaxy of stars; players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric.
In the other corner, you’ve got Juventus. While the Old Lady might not sport the same marquee of stars, there is a sense that Max Allegri’s team is the more complete article. Juventus lost the final to Barcelona two years ago, but in their quarterfinal defeat of the Catalans this season, it was clear that this Juve side has improved in the ensuing 24 months.
While Juve may not have a Ronaldo or Bale in its rank, they have Paulo Dybala, a still emerging talent who’s begun to draw comparisons to his Argentina teammate, Lionel Messi. Dybala was a key player in both Juve’s Scudetto triumph and Champions League push this season. He caught the world’s notice in the first leg against Barça, when he bagged a brace and legitimately outshone Messi.
Having already one-upped Messi, the 23-year-old Dybala now has a chance to do one on Ronaldo. In attack, he will be aided and abetted by Gonzalo Higuain, a striker who was not long ago, deemed surplus to requirements at Real Madrid, and may have something to prove in Saturday’s final.
This is not to overlook the third component in Juve’s attack, Mario Mandzukic, the burly, well-travelled striker, who has already won this competition with Bayern Munich. Or Dani Alves, the right back who was cast off by Barcelona and has been Juve’s X-factor in Europe this season.
Alves has been simply resplendent in the run-up to the final, creating three goals against Monaco and scoring the fourth himself. Alves is but one component in a Juventus defense that is quite simply, the best in the world. While the Brazilian provides support from outside, Juve’s back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are like an impenetrable wall at the heart of the defense.
So effective was the Juve defense in minimizing Barcelona’s chances in the quarters, it was easy to forget that behind the back three lurked Gianluigi Buffon, the most celebrated goalkeeper of this generation.
But while it’s easy to fixate on Juve’s defense, this is a Real Madrid team that also boasts some of the best defenders in Europe. Casemiro, Rafael Varane, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, and of course Ramos, form a formidable defense, that when its on-song, can shutout most attacks.
There remains a lingering sense that Real were somewhat lucky to reach this point this season. In the second leg of the quarterfinal clash against Bayern in particular, Real were done some favors by the referee and required a couple moments of individual brilliance from Ronaldo to get the job done.
However, if optimistic Juve fans have a reason to take pause, it might be because of the fact that Real Madrid have reached the final without ever playing particularly dazzling football. That’s the scary thing about this Real team, they’ve made it to a European final, seemingly without ever needing to get out of third gear.
While Benzema is having a somewhat quiet season, by his standards, and Bale is still a doubt for the final (calf injury), Ronaldo’s reinvention of himself as a deadly, penalty-box poacher, has made him appear at times to be the most dangerous out-and-out striker in Europe this season.
If Ronaldo is in the mood, and he generally is when it comes to the big occasions, he can be a match for even the airtight defense of Juventus.
And then there are the managers.
Max Allegri has done a masterful job at Juventus, extending the domestic dominance the club established under Antonio Conte into a European prominence that’s seen the club reach two Champions League finals in three seasons. And then there’s Zinedine Zidane, one of football’s all-time greats as a player, and a still relatively inexperienced manager, who nonetheless, won the Champions League in his first season in charge at Real Madrid.
Which manager will prevail? Zidane, with his deft hand at gently steering top-level players into playing their best, seemingly by staying out of their way and letting them play their game; or Allegri, the master tactician who has rather quietly built Juventus up into one of the best teams in Europe, despite a lack of significant challenge in their domestic league?
Tune in to watch Real Madrid vs. Juventus in the Champions League final, this Saturday June 3 at 2:45 p.m. EST on FOX.